My plane took off from Chennai, and I was on my way home for the summer. But I had one last pit stop to make – a three-day layover in Dubai. I was excited – this was my first trip to the Middle East. But when I booked my flight, I didn't think about the consequences of being in a Muslim country during Ramadan.
I don't normally write about flying, but in this case, I have to make an exception. My flight from Chennai to Dubai was one of the greatest of my life. It was on Emirates Airlines and the plane was only about one-third full. I had three seats to myself, and there was nobody in front of me to recline and take away all of my precious leg room. There was a power outlet, so I could plug in my laptop. The entertainment center had the latest music and movies. The food was excellent, the flight was smooth. We even landed a few minutes early. Off to a great start!
Immigration at the airport was a breeze. They asked me exactly zero questions, and I didn't even have to fill out any forms. An official just glanced at my passport, stamped me in and I was done in about 30 seconds. The airport was beautiful, with tall columns, wide open spaces, futuristic walkways and bright escalators. This was a great introduction to a new country, and a fantastic way to get me excited about visiting. If only every country treated tourists so well.
Before leaving the airport, I went to the duty-free shop to buy some beer for Ethan, my host in Dubai. It's difficult to find alcohol outside of the airport, so Ethan had told me he wanted to “stock up”. I bought a case of Heineken and two 12-packs of Strong beer. All of that liquid weighed about 20 KG, and I still had to carry my 25+ KG backpack, so I had my work cut out for me. But it was the least I could do for someone willing to host me in this ridiculously expensive city.
I hauled everything to the metro station and had no trouble figuring out where to go. The train was fast and spotless. The people aboard were diverse and they weren't even staring at me. That was weird. Most of the women weren't wearing head scarfs, though some were, and some Muslim men were wearing full-on white garb. The crowd seemed very international.
As soon as I exited the train station, I realized that I would have to cross a highway to get to Ethan's apartment. This wouldn't be possible on foot, so I would have to take a detour that would add several hundred meters of walking. Normally that wouldn't be an issue, but with the temperature at 38 degrees (100 F) and carrying 45KG (100 lbs) of gear, every extra step would matter. I tried to stay in the shade and quickly figured out that this was not a walkable city. Sidewalks were non-existent at many intersections and even on main roads. At one point I had to walk through a pile of sand. Again, not normally an issue, but I could barely carry this load.
Within minutes, I was drenched in sweat from head to toe. I had a liter of water with me, but this was Ramadan. During my flight, I had learned that it was offensive – if not illegal – to eat or drink anything in public during the day. But I was already severely dehydrated and wouldn't last long in this heat without something to drink. So I suspiciously looked back and forth, bent down, and gulped my water, hopeful that nobody was watching. I felt like a heroin addict, trying to hide his habit.
I found a Subway restaurant in Ethan's building and ordered a sandwich. But I had to take it to go, again because of Ramadan. I was surprised the place was even open. There were probably enough non-Muslim customers to keep it afloat. But the girl working there warned me that I could be fined or arrested if I ate in public.
Ethan's apartment was really nice and I was grateful for his hospitality. After the sun went down, I went out to a delicious dinner with Ethan and his friend Reena at a Lebanese restaurant. I learned that it's a big event during Ramadan when the sun sets and you can finally eat again. This makes perfect sense – the poor Muslims must have been starving, having fasted from sunrise till sunset.
After dinner the three of us went for a walk around Creek Park. Like everything else in Dubai, the creek is man-made. The park was beautiful and spotless and we saw almost no other people. The lack of people was kind of creepy after spending the last several months in India and China, where you're never truly alone. Plenty of people were driving, though. That seemed to be the best way to get around.
The next morning, I noticed a new anxiety creeping up in me. As soon as I stepped outside, I wouldn't be able to eat or drink anything (at least not in public) until 7pm. I could deal with not eating, but not drinking? The temperature was forecast to hit 41 degrees (106 F)! How would I survive an entire day in that kind of heat without water? Instead of leaving the safety of the apartment, I dawdled and caught up on stuff on my computer all morning. At noon I ate leftovers from last night and drank plenty of water. Then I took a deep breath and set off.
I walked to the metro station, taking care to stay in the shade as much as possible. It was really hot and I was sweating rather heavily at the end of my 10-minute walk. Luckily, the station was air conditioned. I took the train to the Dubai Mall, one of the city's most famous attractions. This place was huge and gorgeous and immaculate. Once again, there were people from all walks of life. A few men were dressed in Saudi-style head-to-toe white robes that made them look like they were floating. I was a bit jealous – the clothes looked super comfy. Most women wore Western clothing with no head scarves, though there were some women in hijabs and a handful in full-length black burkas.
I spent a while walking around the mall. Damn, this place was impressive. There was an aquarium and a hockey rink and an indoor theme park and so much more. The stores were classy and highly specialized. Pink Panther store? Check. Pinocchio store? Check. There were plenty of kids with their parents, and I could see the appeal of living here with kids. Dubai has to be one of the safest big cities in the world and there's plenty of kid-friendly attractions.
I was getting thirsty. I had a liter of water in my backpack, but obviously I couldn't drink it in public. I figured I could go into a bathroom stall and drink it, but I couldn't find a bathroom. I started to panic and had an absurd thought: maybe the mall didn't have any bathrooms. This would prevent people from doing exactly what I wanted to do. But eventually I found the men's room, tucked away in a corner, and my panic attack subsided. I went into a stall and drank half a liter of water. I wondered if anyone was listening for gulping sounds. Afterward, I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed a few drops of water clinging to my beard. Caught red-handed! Luckily, nobody was looking. (I think.)
Before long, I grew bored of walking through the mall (I'm not a mall person), so I went outside. The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, was next to the mall, and now I looked for good places to photograph it. The building looked almost impossibly tall. Its neighbors soared upwards of 50 stories high, and they didn't even reach the lowest levels of the Burj.
I continued walking through this swanky neighborhood. There was a yellow Lamborghini on display outside of an apartment complex, and many tourists were taking selfies next to it. There was an artificial pond behind the Burj, which I attempted to walk around. But like I said, this wasn't a walkable city, so I had to move away from the pond and onto the main road many times.
It was now after 5:00 and I hadn't eaten or drunk anything in a few hours. I was covered in sweat and getting parched. I found a supermarket and bought a bottle of Gatorade, some yogurt and a meat stick, but I had nowhere to indulge. Now that food and drink were in my hands, they occupied the entirety of my mental focus. I made my way back to the mall, trying to escape the heat before I collapsed. It took a long time to backtrack, but eventually I made it to the safety of the AC. I went into the bathroom and slurped my yogurt. I didn't have a spoon, so I scooped out the dregs using the aluminum foil lid and got yogurt all over my hand. Then I gulped my whole bottle of Gatorade, dribbling the liquid down my shirt. I felt like a wild animal.
Refreshed, I left the bathroom and walked through the mall again. Now that my mind wasn't totally fixated on food and drink, I noticed the other people. They looked run-down and low on energy. I felt bad for them. The restaurants and coffee shops were still closed, but the tantalizing aroma of cooking food filled the air. This was cruel. People already were lining up to eat, even though we still had almost an hour to go. All of that food, and we couldn't eat it yet. I didn't care if it was hot outside; I had to get away from the smell before I went crazy.
I walked back outside, and now there were lots of people taking pictures of the Burj. I took a few shots and retraced my route around the pond. The sun was going down and I stopped on top of a bridge to take some pictures. I noticed a crowd gathering on the lawn, but didn't think much of it. At about 7:10, several people ran over the bridge to join the growing crowd. I walked down to see what the fuss was all about and noticed an artillery cannon, with many people taking pictures. I held up my camera for a photo, and I heard a guy shout and cover his ears. Then, there was a BANG! as the cannon fired a blank. My ears were ringing, it was so loud. The smoke cleared and some people went to get their pictures taken with the cannon. I figured the cannon fire signaled the end of the fast. I could drink! I looked around just to make sure, but nobody was partaking in the most human of activities. Maybe the fast wasn't over, after all. But then I saw a woman eating a banana. Yes! I sat down and drank all of the remaining water from my bottle. I still felt like I was doing something illegal. But it was over. Thank God.
I went into the mall, and now all of the restaurants were open. People were having dinner and coming back to life. It was glorious. I found a fried chicken restaurant and engorged myself. I was so famished and eating so fast, I accidentally bit my cheek. Fasting sure seemed unhealthy. But damn, that chicken was good. (I know, I had only “fasted” for a couple hours. Still, my relationship with food and drink totally changed that day.)
Two days later, I rode the metro across the city, to another giant mall. I walked inside and noticed a sign for a ski hill. I had heard about this indoor ski hill in the middle of the desert, so now I had to see it. It was actually smaller than I had anticipated, and the ceiling was lower. This made sense, considering the extreme use of resources that already must have gone into keeping it cold. It might be a good attraction for the novelty of skiing in a tropical desert, but it was far too expensive ($100+ to ski for two hours) for my taste.
Just when I was getting really hungry, I walked past a food court. There was a curtain in front of it. Damn! But then I heard voices behind the curtain and saw a few people walk around it. Finally, I noticed a sign stating that the food court was open for non-Muslims and kids! I walked inside and saw glorious food and drink, being consumed out in the open. Yes! I had a huge lunch at a Philly cheese steak place and felt revitalized.
The coolest part of my day so far had been riding in the front carriage of the automated metro train (which ran above ground) and looking out the windshield, so I decided to go for a repeat experience. I took the train almost all the way to the end. Along the way, we passed through several mini cities within Dubai, each with their own set of weird skyscrapers. And then the city just ended. There were power lines, smokestack-laden factories, and shitty block housing. Most of the people who were still on the train appeared to be Indian immigrants.
I got off of the train, walked to the other side of the tracks and took a new train toward the center of the city. The first car was almost empty, and I got a “front row seat,” standing and gazing through the windshield. As the Burj came into view, it felt like I was moving toward Oz.
Ethan and I went to an Iranian restaurant for dinner. It had a jovial atmosphere, full of people smoking sheesha and playing backgammon. The guys next to us played game after game of backgammon for two hours straight, at lightning speed. They barely uttered a word to each other the entire time. Our food was delicious; I had a barbecue chicken dish and Ethan had fried fish. There was a live band that played a variety of Middle-Eastern instruments. All in all, it was a fantastic sendoff.
Dubai, with its extreme heat and plentiful shopping malls, wasn't my kind of city. And I certainly can't recommend visiting during Ramadan. But it was still cool to see the world's tallest building and the other zany attractions such as the indoor ski hill. What will they think of next?
Want more pictures? Click here for all of my pictures of Dubai.